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August 23, 2005

Margit Rosen

Full text of "Shooting the Dead" by Margit Rosen (published in Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art), pages 248–9)

The picture is a reproduction of a photo postcard. The photograph, taken around 1900, shows a "bludgeoned body of an African American male, propped in a rocking chair, blood-splattered clothes, white and dark paint applied to face and head, shadow of man using rod to prop up the vicitm's head." Sending out this postcard was the final act in a chain of cruelties. The card provides evidence of a lynching similar to those that took place almost every week in the USA in the late nineteenth century. Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 African Americans met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. The postcards were cherished souvenirs. The US Postal Service first decided in 1908 that such material should not be sent openly.
The observer's horror, having read the image's description, is provoked on the level of the represented as well as on the level of representation. Through the screen of the photograph, perceived as a quasi-transparent medium of documentation in everyday life, the observer recognizes a dead person and the shadow of one of the murderers. Secondly, he or she realizes that the picture itself is a product made by one of the murderers or at least of one of their accomplices.
Those persons who made these pictures committed an iconoclastic act of desecration by painting the face of the corpse and sticking cotton on its head. They attacked the already lifeless body, the corpse, which can be defined as a transitory image representing the absent person. The derision of the material remains affects the murdered individual: corpse and absent person, sign and signified cannot be thought of separately. Even in the situation of death, the harm done to the body is harm done to the individual. Yet the depicted postcard not only provided documentation of this iconoclastic act carried out on the image of man; it was also made and staged for the sake of the photograph. the card thus provides information about the function of representation in the completion of humiliation and about the worship of images by murderers who profit from the power of visual representation.
Every photo of a corpse injures, in principle, the personal rights of the deceased who never gave their approval for the photo to be taken. The gaze remains unreturned. This becomes evident when the staging of the corpse offends its dignity. The act of photographing a victim is an act of total control. When the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer took Polaroid shots of his victims, he was not only producing trophies or fetishes: he was also using his power to determine the victim's form of presence by representation. The photographic act, therefore, had a significant role in the lynchings. The photos were souvenirs of the spectacle, proofs of power, as only a dominant group can proudly advertise their bloody deeds and means of facilitating the endless replay of anguish. "Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary."
Yet the photographer created an agent of his interests that has the potential to turn itself against him as condemning evidence of cruelty. André Bazin's statement that the image's essential function is to save man from death and oblivion likewise contains the significance of the photograph within the context of lynching: the existence of these pictures might, for the victim, become a sphere of post-mortal influence. For the picture shows the corpse, it preserves the "scandal of death," which is not made up of the absense of a person, but their physical remains in space. Photography facilitates the preservation of the presence of the murdered, the confrontation with the historical event that might result in a posthumous symbolical restoration of the integrity of the deceased.
The image of humiliation can be transformed into a tool of accusation; the image of absolute control is therefore not entirely controlled by its producers. Already in 1922, a black-owned newspaper in Topeka Kansas reprinted the photograph of a lynching that took place in Durant, Oklahoma and urged every other newspaper to do likewise, so that "the world may see and know what semi-barbarous America is doing." Also the curators of the carefully prepared exhibition Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America used the photographs for socio-historical instruction: "the photographs provide an opportunity for dialogue among New Yorkers about a part of our past that is difficult for us to confront."
Yet the discussion surrounding the exhibit showed resistance to the pictures and the uses that were made of them. It reflected not only the deep ambivalence of the images, caused by the fact that the photographers who shot the dead were accomplices of the murderers who determined the humiliating perspective by staging the corpse. The discussion also considered the role that shocking photographs play in the formation of public consciousness of history. The New York Times, for example, warned of "The Perils of Growing comfortable with evil." [sic] There was not only criticism of reprinting the pictures in news magazines with little information, in which the original act of humiliation would be essentially repeated, but, also questioned was whether these photographs were, in principle, suitable "to sensitize to long-buried horrors of America's racial past."
Pictures that show the victims of violent acts are often percieved [sic] as dangerous objects whose effects can't be predicted: the spectator might adopt the perspective of the perpetrators, the photographs might be perceived as a fascinating creepy spectacle or they might simply benumb the horrified spectator, instead of informing him or her. The fear of the picture's power to shock emotions exists parallel to the fear that they could lose this power; that people could become accustomed to them without feeling anything. The horrifying images of the corpses, however, are linked, in contrast to textual historical sources, with the idea of the spectator losing all rationality and humanitarian values. The visual information the photograph displays, the concrete and individual events represented by the corpse as its most terrible evidence, remains suspicious.
Yet this kind of critique, which indeed reveals the ambivalent potential of photographic representation, relinquishes the possibilities of this medium. The photographs are more than just a tool to call public attention for historical events that might previously have been common knowledge for historians alone. They need to be contextualized, as does every historical source. If this precondition is fulfilled, as f.e. in Without Sanctuary, pictures such as the one depicted offer an additional layer of information by displaying the concrete, individual event with all its cruel details such as the desecration of the corpse. It fills a blind spot in the historical consciousness constituted by media such as film and photography. The idea of excluding images of horror, excluding photographs of corpses, is based on a misunderstanding of the performance of visual representation. It not only recreates presence, but also creates distance, which is the basic requirement of perception and reflection. Perseus doesn't defeat Medusa by closing his eyes. With the help of the mirror, the representation of her face, he is able to look at her.

More: A small index of (more or less) related textual excerpts...

"Margit Rosen"
Posted by Dan at 01:16 AM

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Referenced in this post:

Amazon: ICONOCLASH: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art—Bruno Latour (Editor), Peter Weibel (Editor)
Iconoduel: Never shake thy gory locks at me (a compendium)